After almost two hours of discussion, including comments from four people during a public hearing, the Sarasota County commissioners voted 4-1 Wednesday to grant a permit for the construction of a public boat ramp, maintenance dredging and other improvements related to the development of Blackburn Point Park on the south side of Blackburn Point Road.
Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who cast the lone “no” vote, said he could not support the project. Although the work was within legal parameters, he said, he felt the county was trying to enhance the park beyond the level the property could support.
“I think we’re just biting off far more than we can chew,” he said.
On a second vote, which was unanimous, the commissioners granted a variance for a reduction of the watercourse buffer in one section of the park, which is divided among eastern, central and western nodes. Thaxton said the county was not allowing itself any latitude in that work that went beyond what it allowed for members of the public seeking such variances.
After the votes, County Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson said she knew numerous meetings had been held with stakeholders since the county bought the property in 2006, but she asked staff to invite the stakeholders, including those who had spoken Wednesday, to one more meeting, “not to totally revamp this but to look at some tweaks.”
Although the public hearings focused on specific aspects of the park project, the commissioners and public weighed in on a wide range of issues, from concerns about traffic back-ups because of the one-lane swing bridge on Blackburn Point Road to whether county staff could keep people with motorized vessels from using a parking area that has been designed for the launching of watercraft without motors, such as kayaks.
Thaxton also voiced concern about how seagrass would be affected by dredging in the area. Staff assured him that areas designated for the dredging showed signs of having been dredged in the past.
During the public comments, Dennis O. Doughty, speaking for the Casey Key Association and other neighborhood associations in the affected area, said residents had been concerned about aspects of the park design because of the threat of “unmanageable traffic congestion” along the narrow Blackburn Point Road. He thanked the commissioners and staff for the facet of the redesign that would not allow vehicles with motorized vessels to use what staff has named the western node of the park.
However, Doughty said, county officials should make that prohibition clear through “conspicuous display of signage along the Blackburn Point Road” and in the other two park nodes.
He also asked the commission and staff to make sure conspicuous signage goes up directing the public to the beaches at the south end of Casey Key, instead of the north end, so the public would “not be encouraged to seek beach access over private property and, therefore, trespass.”
Additional discussion Wednesday focused on the fact that patrons of the Casey Key Fish House use the area of the western node for parking.
“I would rather see more of a park there than a parking lot,” Thaxton said. “What we have now is more or less a free-for-all.”
Furthermore, Thaxton said, once the park is complete, the number of spaces for vehicles undoubtedly will be reduced. “I bet you’re going to cut (the total) in half,” he said.
“You can’t just park willy-nilly all over it,” Patterson said, adding that the restaurant management probably will need to consider other options for customers.
John McCarthy, interim executive director of community, information and parks and natural resources for the county, said that rowing events held in the area also would lead to more vehicles in the parking portion of that node.
“I think that’s a worthy thing to look at,” he said.